“Granny, how can I start my own business, so I can get more money?” I asked my grandmother one afternoon.
Growing up in a family with barely enough to pay the bills, me and my siblings weren’t given money to carry around. So the summer I spent at my Granny’s was my first real shot at getting my own money. Granny was the kind of woman who could fry chicken and change the oil in a car, and I respected her for it.
“You need a product. People will only give you money if you produce something for them. I have my food and I have my hands. I use my hands at work to solder the motherboards for the computers they sell, and I sell my food to people who want the best southern cooking in town.” She smiled and untied her apron, then collapsed onto her brown, polyester recliner with an exhausted look.
“How do I find a product?” I insisted.
“Use your mind. What do you like to do and what is right in front of you? Use your mind. Now chile let me close my eyes for a while,” she said.
My grandmother stretched back far enough into the chair that the footrest lifted. She closed her eyes and the lines on her caramel-colored forehead eventually relaxed. I stood watching until her breathing slowed down, her full lips slightly parted, and she nodded off to sleep.
As granny slept, I took the pins and ponytail out of my hair and changed into some shorts. My aunt who was babysitting left; my sister, Tanya, and little cousins were outback playing in the yard; and my teenage cousin, Joyce, who lived with my grandmother permanently, was in her bedroom listening to music.
‘What do you like to do and what is right in front of you?’ played over and over in my mind. I started my search for product in the basement where my grandmother kept her catering supplies.
Giant pans stacked high, boxes of Styrofoam cups to the ceiling, metal folding chairs, and food warming units were among the items packed neatly into the small, unfinished room that smelled like mothballs in a stuffy warehouse. I discovered a large box that contained several small boxes of stir stick straws. I was filled with excitement because I really like drinking through straws.
I took one of the boxes of straws upstairs to the kitchen and emptied them onto the counter. There were too many to count and I kept losing my place, so I grouped them into piles of 10. I had 10 piles of 10. I opened the drawer and found several twist-ties and tried tying one of them around the bundle of straws, but the bundle was too wide.
I wrapped a rubber binder around each bundle of straws and ran outside to my neighbors with the 10 bundles of straws in hand.
No one answered the doors of the first set of single-family houses I went to across the street, which left me discouraged, so I went to Cathy’s white house with red shutters next door.
Cathy was always friendly and if anyone was going to support my new idea, I knew she would. I knocked hard, and when she answered the door, my elation was palpable.
“Cathy, will you buy my product? I’m trying to make $100,” I said, beaming.
Cathy had shoulder-length, curly blonde hair. She often wore jeans that were pulled up high around her waist. She always smiled and looked at you in the eyes when she spoke. Every time she was outside, she always had several cats following her around her yard. Granny told me that all those cats lived in Cathy’s house which was so hard for me to imagine because my mother was against us having animals living with us.
“I don’t have $100 but I do have $1,” Cathy said, reaching into her pocket for the $1 bill. She took one of the bundles from my hand and tucked the dollar into the front pocket of my shorts.
“Thanks, Cathy!” I said, excitedly. My face was bright, and my eyes were brighter. Cathy smiled at me, picked up one of the cats that was now crawling around her feet, and closed the white, painted door as I pinged down the steps and back onto the sidewalk.
I went down the block and knocked on every door. For those who answered, I told them that I was selling product for $1. After I sold all the straws, I raced back down the street all the way home.
“Granny, granny, wake up!” I cried. I grabbed the arm of the chair and shook her relentlessly.
“What’s the matter?” Although her 52-year-old body was tired from the day and lifetime of work, she jumped up out of her chair immediately. “What happened?” she shouted.
“Look!” I began to pick the crumpled dollars from my pockets.
“Where did you get all that money?” she asked, looking simultaneously puzzled and relieved.
“I still have the $10 you gave me, too. I’m rich!” I dropped to the floor and began smoothing out all the bills.
“What did you do?” She started picking up the money from the floor.
“I found some product for the neighbors,” I replied, now organizing the dollars.
I didn’t look up to meet her gaze, but her voice sounded intrigued, so I responded, “The straws from the basement. Joyce gave me rubber binders and the neighbors gave me $1 for them,” I explained.
“You sold these?” I ran into the kitchen to discover my grandmother holding the box that once contained the stir stick straws.
“Yes ma’am. You said I needed some product. What do you like to do and what’s right in front of you?” I felt like a millionaire.
“Yes, I did say that…” My grandmother said, chuckling. “You sold straws?” Her deep and hearty laugh became fuller.
“Yes! I like drinking through straws and there was a whole big box of them in the basement right in front of me! You were right; it worked!” I started jumping up and down. “I can sell them all and have $100!”
“Naw chile, if these people bought straws this time, they won’t buy them again. At least not right away,” she said, shaking her head and laughing. “I can’t believe they gave you money for these when I give them away for free.” She went back into the living room and picked up the dollar bills from the floor. “You got $10 here. I’m impressed and proud of you. I am going to take $5 and give you $5.”
“Why do you get $5?” I shouted, feeling cheated.
“Because you sold my product. Where do you think the straws came from? I had to buy them,” she said.
“That’s not fair,” I said. My face had fallen. I looked down sheepishly at the floor.
“Life is not fair. But don’t worry, I will find you some more product. Now run out and play.”
I have learned a lot about starting businesses since then. But I have never forgot the lesson What do you like to do and what is right in front of you? This is something we would do well to remind ourselves and all aspiring young entrepreneurs in our life.
And if the first business doesn’t work out, you may want to remind them of my Granny’s words: “Life is not fair. But don’t worry, I will find you some more product. Now run out and play.”